Debating Petrilli’s Post “One size fits most” for Ed Reform

By Bruno Behrend
We education reformers are a fractious lot.  We like to debate each other more than we like to take on the obstacles to transforming education.  One exception to this rule is Mike Petrilli of The Fordham Foundation. He is well known for his tendency to ask, “Why it is we can’t all get along.” This is mostly an admirable trait, but there are times when dissention and disagreement are called for.
With that in mind, I felt compelled to dismantle one of Mike’s recent posts over at Fordham’s “Flypaper” blog. This post, titled “One size fits most,” tries to find a middle ground between those who believe we can “fix” or “reform” the nation’s schools, and those who want to transform them.  I respectfully disagree that there is such middle ground, and thought Mike’s post deserved a good “fisking.”

My view is that the current Government Education Complex is beyond reform, and simply needs to be dismantled as quickly as possible.  Some might say that we shouldn’t toss the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.  I agree, of course, but the Complex is mostly bathwater.  Our kids, the talented teachers, and the small minority of good “leaders,” are the “baby.” The rest can be tossed.
So here goes.  Mike’s quoted writing from “One size fits most” is indented and italicized.

If you step back from day to day vitriol that characterizes the current education-policy “debate,” and glimpse the larger picture, two worldviews on education reform emerge. One, articulated by the likes of Linda Darling-Hammond, Marc Tucker, David Cohen, and others, obsesses about curricular “coherence,” and the lack thereof in our nation’s schools. The other, envisioned by Rick Hess, Tom Vander Ark, Paul Hill, and many more, seeks to unleash America’s trademark dynamism inside our K-12 education system. Though these ideas appear to pull in opposite directions, they might best work in concert.

As long as we are being fractious, let me be the first to chide Mike Petrilli, an eminently decent and reasonable guy, for being too reasonable.
The “coherence” camp has been winning all the political, hiring, and funding battles since the NEA was an Administrator’s Club yearning to “professionalize” education.  They have a decades-long track record of unmitigated failure.
The “dynamism” camp, which can never “prove” itself to the “coherence” camp, has already proven enough to deserve more merit than their detractors. The coherence camp isn’t that interested in improving education for children.  They are interested in preserving their system.

Let’s start with the Coherence Camp. Its argument, most recently made in David Cohen’s Teaching and Its Predicaments, is that America’s teachers are being set up to fail by a system that is fragmented, divided, and confused about its mission. Teachers are given little clear guidance about what’s expected of them. Even when goals are clear, these teachers lack the tools to succeed: Pre-service training is completely disconnected from classroom expectations, and never ending “reform” pulls up the roots of promising efforts before they are given time to flower. 

Cohen’s lament fails to hold water.  With a long record of large funding increases from all sources, the “tools” argument is laughable.  Those inside our education system have been given all the resources they need, and they have squandered them on expanding payroll, pay, and benefits for a closed class of employees.
They have engaged in virtually every imaginable fad (class size reduction, self-esteem, new math, whole language, mainstreaming, etc.), all of which yielded no results. The system then calls for more funding to engage in more useless fads.
Real “promising efforts,” such as charters, KIPP, Teach for America, and virtually every other potentially good idea, is fought tooth and nail, not just by unions, but by every special interest group tied to the Complex.

The Coherence Camp looks longingly at Europe and Asia, where many (national) systems offer teachers the opportunity to work as professionals in environments of trust, clarity, and common purpose. (Japan envy yesterday, Finland envy today?) The members of this camp praise national standards, a national (or at least statewide) curriculum that gathers the best thinking about how to reach these standards and shares this thinking with the teaching corps, authentic assessments that provide diagnostic information, and professional development (pre-service and in-service) that is seamlessly woven into all of the rest.

The vast majority of people inside our system couldn’t pass muster in the Finnish system.  To convert to that system here would require the firing of a good chunk of our teacher base, and cutting massive amounts of our bureaucratic deadwood.
This calls into question all the talk about “teacher enrichment” that seems to be all the rage at education “summits.” Why should the nation, already having mis-allocated trillions propping up the district model, waste a dime on enrichment?  Keep the people who are qualified, let the unqualified go, and go to America’s deep pool of under-utilized and highly qualified employees to make up any needed difference.
Are we serious about transforming education, or are we trying to curry favor with opponents of reform, most of whom are not bargaining in good faith in any event.

[Minor edit – Mike’s post is snipped here.]

As bright as that vision may be, however, it carries with it many dark clouds. First is the temptation to lead by decree, in a very top-down, highly-bureaucratized manner that squelches the initiative of frontline educators. The best systems in the world, according to McKinsey, find a way to combine common standards with lots of local autonomy, but striking that balance is no easy feat.

“No easy feat” is a massive understatement.  It’s impossible, as decades of failed “reforms” prove.  This is why I tell anyone who will listen that “reforming” American education is a pipedream.  It must be transformed through managed dismantlement.  We transformers ought to start being clear on this.

A more fundamental concern is that it assumes getting all of a nation’s teachers—and parents—to buy into one notion of what it means to be well-educated. Asking people with diverse views to coalesce around one educational model is a little bit like asking all citizens to choose a single religion. One’s views on schools are closely related to larger values—what it means to live the “good life,” the degree to which children should be raised to pursue their own individual aspirations versus contribute to a larger community, whether learning “right from wrong” takes precedence over learning to “value diversity,” and on and on.

This paragraph basically proves my point about our system being beyond reform.  It’s fine to look at homogenous societies like Finland, Sweden, or Japan, and find a bauble of education wisdom here and there.  The US, OTOH, is a diverse nation of 300+ million people.  Attempting to shoehorn this nation into a Finnish model is a fool’s errand.
At any given moment, and under any “reform” scenario, the majority is against you.  Mike Petrilli understands this when he says ….

To restate the cliché, “one size fits all” is a recipe for frustration, if not social and political warfare, at least in a heterogeneous country like ours.

…But he still feels compelled to play Rodney King performing Kum-Bah-Yah.

Dynamism Devotees, on the other hand, look at America’s private sector (and especially Silicon Valley) with envy. They envision an education marketplace full of can-do problem-solvers, myriad options for parents, and lots of customization for kids. They don’t even want a “system,” per se, but a raucous “sector” that welcomes new entrepreneurs and washes away legacy operators if they don’t keep up with the times. To them, the American higher-education sector looks like a much stronger alternative to our K-12 system, what with its rise of new competitors (many of them online), flexible, student-centered funding, and responsiveness to consumer demand.

So you hear Dynamism Devotees chanting the “every school a charter school” mantra and preaching the exciting potential of customized digital learning, the rise of upstart providers of teacher training, and the imperative of “backpack” funding for schools.

This appears to be an accurate description of the Dynamism camp, and I endorse their view as far more robust and workable than the Coherence camp, which has been breeding incoherence for decades.

But for all of the excitement, this vision has major holes, too. For one, with our system already fragmented into 14,000 districts, won’t the “every school a charter school” idea just lead to even less coordination and fewer benefits of scale?

It is time that someone took the “benefits of scale” argument head on.  In today’s district model there are no such benefits, as any “scale” is merely a metaphor for “one-size-fits-as-many-as-we-can-force-into-it.” Here are a few questions that effectively undermine the “scale” argument.
“Can you define what you mean by ‘benefit of scale?”
“Can you show me an example of such a benefit?”
When push comes to shove there are no “benefits of scale” to be found in the district system.  If there was such a benefit, we would have long ago abolished state constitutional clauses, and created a giant federal school district.  If that idea strikes you as insane, please extend your thinking to the Chicago Public Schools, LAUSD, and other urban districts.  A large urban district is as unworkable as a single federal district.
For evidence, I offer the nation’s urban dropout factories as proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
The truth is that all 14,000 “districts” have to go.  Districts have never been a “localizing” function.  They have been a tool to centralize education, and they have duped local property tax payers to fund this disastrous policy.
We need to go back (or forward) to a time when every school (virtual or otherwise) is run by its own board, and the money follows the child to the school of their choice.  This is the only model that offers as solution to the “diversity” issue raised by Petrilli.
“Every school a charter school” is exactly what we need.  “Coordination” is not a value, but a pipedream of the social engineers who worship the Prussian military.  Read Eliyahu M. Goldratt’s The Goal. The entire manufacturing revolution of the last few decades was built upon “fragmenting” production runs and empowering line workers to manage their part of the system.
Our education system is in dire need of fragmentation.  Centralization and coordination have become incoherent.

Yes, charter “networks” might rise up to connect schools with one another and provide essential services, but will they spread to every nook and cranny of our country?

“But will they spread?” is the ultimate refuge of the central planner.  If anything is clear about America, it is that is utterly resistant to this type of coercion.

If NCLB’s free tutoring initiative was any lesson, we can expect the vast majority of communities to remain unserved. Would we get a “dynamic marketplace” in the exurbs, small towns, and rural locales, or even less support for those schools than they get now?

The NCLB example is not applicable.  You can’t expect a small “choice” widget to function in a gamed and unmanageable environment. This is why “pilot projects” don’t really predict what will or can happen.
Being an unapologetic dynamist and supporter of 100 percent fully-funded school choice, I’m pretty sure that spontaneous order will spread good ideas faster than the controlled chaos of the Complex.  Yet, even if it didn’t succeed spreading the best ideas everywhere, there is no way it could fail on the scale of our current system.
Once money is tied to the child, the parents, the family, and the local community will decide, and produce, what is wanted.  This is far more organic than the bureaucratic model.

Furthermore, why should we have any confidence that the result of all of this “creative destruction” will be a citizenry with essential democratic skills, knowledge, and habits? The marketplace model in higher education has, along with its benefits, also led lots of people to get narrow, skill-focused degrees rather than seek a broad liberal education. Can we afford a K-12 system that does the same? With taxpayers footing the bill, don’t they have a right to ask kids to learn certain essential somethings?

This is a “straw man” argument.  First, the culture will generally follow the majority, which will still want to adhere to the cultural norm. Second, no one is arguing for getting rid of all government guidelines.  Make certification to redeem scholarships a function of a specific pass rate, and the essentials will be attained, particularly when compared to the results of the current system.

So what to do? The Coherence Camp can plausibly argue that its path is the surer route to higher student achievement and more consistent classroom practice—but it risks alienating thousands of teachers who feel hamstrung by a curriculum they don’t like and millions of parents who want something different for their kids. It also feeds a stultifying monopoly and tends to empower those interest groups that know how to bend the monopoly to their will. Dynamism Devotees are better suited to meet parental demands and to empower autonomy-seeking educators—but they can’t promise that their “unbundling” of the system won’t lead to lots of poorly served schools (and kids).

Dynamists can promise to outperform the current system, and for less money. That should be game, set, and match.  For evidence, I point to New Orleans, which is merely a “charter” experiment with a “recovery district.” It doesn’t even scratch the surface of what the dynamists can unleash once their shackles are removed.

Thankfully, the two visions can be combined; the resulting approach might be labeled One Size Fits Most. For the majority of American schools, we follow the Coherence Camp’s cues. We build national standards (à la Common Core), we develop a handful of national curricula, we connect pre-service and in-service training to the standards, and we tie accountability for schools, teachers, and students to them, too. We continue to minimize the role of the 14,000 school boards (if not eliminate them outright) by empowering states to take an ever-larger role in all aspects of educational improvement. And through these mechanisms, we make the “default” option in American public education—the “typical” public school—much better than it is today.

At the same time, we make it easy for educators and parents to opt out of this One Best System. We grow the charter and digital sectors aggressively and remove the barriers that are keeping them from achieving their full, dynamic potential. And we even consider going back to the original charter concept—allowing schools to negotiate their own unique performance expectations with their authorizers, rather than being held accountable to the One Best System’s standards. More specifically, we allow charters and digital providers (or at least some subset) to opt out of the Common Core framework entirely, and to proffer their own evidence of educational achievement.

This is a classic call for “both, and” rather than “either, or.” Done right, it could accelerate the benefits of both the Coherence and Dynamism approaches—while mitigating their weaknesses. And it could allow an escape valve for some of the overheated debates in which we’re stuck. Don’t like the Common Core? Opt out. Don’t think our schools should be driven by market forces? Opt in. How about we give this option a try?

Mike almost completely redeems any previous mistakes with these last insightful paragraphs, as they show that he wants to take the nation down the right path. Sadly, his inclusion of the Coherence camp is a fatal flaw.
His policy prescription is akin to hooking up a sports car (dynamists) to a bunch of horses (taxpayers) while simultaneously hooking up a trailer of legacy systems (Government Education Complex) to the back of the sports car.  Why bother?
As we re-allocate resources, Mike’s scenario may end up being how it will all break down. It just needs to happen much faster.  The problem lies in taking the legacy system along for the ride.  Unhitch the horses and the Complex from the sports car.  Start the engine. Apply the foot to the accelerator and press down.
America’s children have waited long enough.
Bruno Behrend, J.D., is director of the Center for School Reform at The Heartland Institute. From early 2006 through late 2008, Behrend hosted a radio show in the Chicago area that showcased authors and policy specialists including publisher Steve Forbes, columnist Mark Steyn, author Shelby Steele, and many others. In 2008, Behrend coauthored Illinois Deserves Better – The Ironclad Case for an Illinois Constitutional Convention, the release of which coincided with a campaign to pass a referendum calling for a Constitutional Convention in Illinois. Mr. Behrend has served as an advisor to groups seeking to rewrite the legislative article of the Illinois Constitution and as Field Director for FreedomWorks in Illinois. In 2009, he was policy director for a gubernatorial candidate in the Illinois primary election.

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